Art TEDTalks

7 arts festivals that break the boundary between audience and performer

Posted by: Jessica Gross

To anyone who thinks of arts festivals as a fun bit of window dressing, David Binder’s rejoinder is: look again, and look more closely. In this spirited talk, given at TEDUniversity, the accomplished theater producer (he was behind the New York City phenomenon De La Guarda, a dance performance staged over the audience’s head) describes today’s arts festivals as “radically open” and marvels at their ability to “transform cities and communities.” Binder is fascinated by the role festivals play in cities’ self-understanding and evolution.

“I’m interested in how a festival helps a city to express itself, how it lets it come into its own,” says Binder. “Festivals promote diversity, they bring neighbors into dialogue, they increase creativity, they offer opportunities for civic pride, they improve our general psychological well-being. In short, they make cities better places to live.”

In this talk, Binder describes a number of festivals that explode boundaries and expectations. He begins by describing Minto: Live, an event he discovered while in Sydney, Australia. Taking place an hour southwest of the city, this event turns the suburban streets of Minto into a stage, with residents stepping out of their homes to perform on their lawns and in their driveways.

To hear more about what defines the new breed of arts festival, watch Binder’s talk. And after the jump, a roundup of more out-of-the-box arts festivals — some Binder mentioned and some he would simply love.

  1. The French company Royal de Luxe mounts shows in which giant (really: enormous!) puppets inhabit a city and perform a story. In “Sea Odyssey,” performed this year, a giant becomes trapped inside the Titanic and drowns—but, through a century-long journey, his brother rescues a letter the giant has written to his daughter. Throughout the performance, the audience moves underneath the giant puppets.
    .
  2. The German group Rimini Protokoll uses concrete, site-specific situations as springboards for shows that demand “an intense exploratory process.” For one project, the group created a radio drama out of archived meetings and conversations from the Stasi records office. For another, groups of 100 people who represented their cities’ demographics took the stage to share stories about their lives, capturing a snapshot of the city.
    .
  3. Binder himself produced the New Island Festival, involving performances by Dutch artists on New York’s Governor’s Island. Like the festivals Binder admires, in his own, he encouraged viewer-performer collaboration. One event, Archeological Dig, allowed festivalgoers to join archeologists at a dig site; ANYtime connected New Yorkers with Amsterdam residents through videochat; and in Silent Disco, participants could either dance to music piped into their headphones, or stand on the sidelines to watch a soundtrackless dance party.
    .
  4. The Back to Back Theater, an Australian outfit, mounts performances by “people who are perceived to have a disability.” In one project, called “small metal objects,” the audience wears headphones and sits on a set of bleachers overlooking a public space. They watch and listen as two members of the company meet a couple of executives for a business transaction. The performance, Binder explains, reminds us “who and what we choose to edit out of our daily lives”—people who, like the disabled, are often forced under the radar.
    .
  5. The annual Utah Arts Festival, which takes place in June, this year included the “Open Road Project,” in which festivalgoers could contribute to a mural, which changed “daily from pastoral road to city graffiti,” and a team slam poetry competition.
    .
  6. Some artists are incorporating the spirit of these groundbreakingly interactive festivals, too. Tino Seghal’s performance art pieces revolve around audience participation. Two years ago, for a piece called “This Progress” at the Guggenheim in New York, he briefly trained a motley group of civilians, who engaged visitors in one-on-one conversations. Last month, in “These Associations” at the Tate Modern, he coordinated “an assembly of participants whose choreographed actions use movement, sound, and conversation.”